82nd On the Hunt in Iraq


A battalion of paratroopers riding in helicopters swooped down to attack insurgents fleeing heavy fighting in Baghdad and Baqubah on July 12, killing around 30, capturing 23 and freeing three kidnapped Iraqis who had been sentenced to die by an illegitimate terrorist court. No U.S. troops were killed in the battle.

Operation Ithaca targeted the Diyala river valley 15 miles northeast of Baqubah, a former insurgent stronghold. Scouts, aerial drones and intelligence had identified the area as a likely escape route for enemy forces fleeing U.S. and Iraqi "surge" operations.

Planning for the operation began when U.S. troops conducting a raid discovered large numbers of civilian refugees. "We found through tactical questioning that people had been forced out of their village," says Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Poppas, commander of the 5th battalion of the 73rd Cavalry Regiment, a new element of the enlarged 82nd Airborne Division.

Insurgent forces - reportedly influenced by the Islamic State in Iraq group - had cleared out three villages for use as a "safe haven." They built strong points and installed a faux Islamic court that executed kidnapped Iraqis and even recorded the murders on videotape. Poppas says the displaced villagers gave his forces detailed hand-drawn maps showing the insurgent positions.

Operation Ithaca, which included air attacks by Apache gunship helicopters and Air Force fighters, marks the continued evolution of U.S. parachute formations. Despite continuing to train for massed parachute jumps deep behind enemy lines, these days the 82nd Airborne usually moves into combat in helicopters or trucks. Analyst Barry Watts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment calls the parachute mission "a leftover consequence of the glories of the 82nd and 101st [airborne divisions] in 1944," the year paratroopers dropped en masse into Nazi-occupied France.

But paratroopers' flexibility gives them a leg up over their opponents. To keep insurgents off guard during previous operations, 5-73 has even walked cross-country into combat instead of relying on trucks that have to stick to main roads, "which surprised everyone," Poppas says. For Op Ithaca, the battalion assaulted multiple landing zones. "Anti-Iraqi forces were caught completely by surprise both in timing and the placing of our elements."

Now that the area is cleansed of insurgents, Poppas says he is planning on sending in civil affairs teams to begin the process of rebuilding the re-captured villages. "We try to do as much post-kinetic stuff as possible."

-- David Axe

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